For LOST IN LOS ALAMOS Beta Readers Only - Please Do Not Share.
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Scott watched the clock. He was traveling at over a mile a minute, the idea of which made it hard to accept that he had at least six hours of driving to yet another place he’d never been. The tires hummed on the cold dry pavement. A weak sun shone through wispy winter clouds but it still produced a glare on the highway that made it hard on the eyes.
Running downward on the Google map, Scott could see the sparse areas without population growing larger. Visually, the landscape changed. Farms that had seemed rich and productive now were more weather-weary. Strip malls were increasingly abandoned along the interstate frontage roads after he had passed Pueblo.
Seventeen miles past the south side of Apache City, Scott came across a towering service station sign looming over the highway with the huge stereotypical face of an alien, its large black eyes fixed on each traveler coming toward it from both directions. You could see it for a few miles or more. Below the black and white face the sign read, ‘Alien Jerky’ in unprofessional brick-red painted text. Scott slowed to make the turn onto the frontage road.
There were rusted oil drums lining the immediate drive to the station and were circled around the wide sign pole. More oil drums and razor wire were piled higher up the pole tapering to a third tier. There was a wide rusted band behind the razor wire that had been welded around the pole. Some of the oil drums had the logo of the Texaco Oil company and on some, the labels were obscured in black and red graffiti. A few had skull and cross bones spray-painted on them. Dust-covered brush grew in the spaces between and around the drums and they appeared as an attempt at both welcoming and telling the occasional visitor to move on toward the rusted steel and wind-pitted glass oasis.
As Scott approached the entrance to the station, he saw an old yellow Toyota Corolla station wagon parked on the side of the building next to the service bay doors. The old car appeared to be piled high with all kinds of things in the back seat, the rear window, the passenger seat, and dashboard. A Hoarder, Scott thought. He imagined the owner seeing herself as the captain of a merchant vessel hauling goods across the seas - a precious cargo that represented wealth and access and security. She would be ensconced in the wheelhouse cockpit and extremely protective of her shipment and possessions that surrounded her like a turtle pulled into its shell.
The station’s service bay doors were boarded over with graying weathered plywood that was delaminating along the edges from continued exposure to the harsh Colorado winters and summers. Graffiti had been rolled over with gray primer a number of times.
“No service here.” Scott said aloud.
He pulled the Jeep in directly in front of the building. Through the window, Scott could see someone inside through the reflection of the front grill of the Jeep and flat, mountain-spiked desert plain behind it. It was a young man, maybe late twenties and he was scowling at Scott. Scott paused at the curb for a moment, then nervously put the Jeep into reverse, backed up, looking back and forth between the man and watching where he was backing up to before pulling over to the left side of the building so he wasn’t centered directly in the line of fire. He shut the engine off and got out.
When Scott opened the door, a trio of small bells hanging on the push bar jingled his arrival, even though the guy at the counter couldn’t miss him entering. As Scott was about to let the door close, he noticed a number of decals on the door in front of him. The prominent symbol indicated he was being video taped. In the moment it took Scott to scan the images, he also noted a Yelp! sticker, MORE.
“Yer lettin’ the heat out!” The small yapping dog voice barked from the gangly attendant at him as he was stocking the cigarette shelves above and behind the counter. Scott kept his eyes from darting over to the guy. Had he looked, he would have seen a strung-out man Scott’s own age but unnaturally aged from pot and beer and the amphetamines needed to make it through too many graveyard shifts at the convenience store. Unshaven, the brim of a greasy ball cap pushed his already deep set eyes further back into shadow. Badly cut tufts of dirty blond hair poked out from around the cap from back to front.
“Oh, sorry!” Scott offered, quickly letting the door swing closed and wondering if he had landed on another planet. The guy went about sliding the small packs into their slots. Scott thought, “Oh, it’s a guy, not a woman hoarder.”
He wandered down and around the few aisles of standard convenience store supplies until he looked up and out the front window as another car pulled up into the space where Scott had first stopped. It was another beater car. With twin, faded and peeling white racing stripes, Scott pegged it as a very old maroon and rust-eaten Datsun 240Z, so long past its glory days that it seemed it’s external parts would fall off around it when the engine that was shaking the whole car was shut off.
Over the top of the chips aisle, Scott noticed the attendant guy looking out the window at the new arrival as well.
“Aw, shit!” The guy said in a positive and expectant tone.
They both watched the man as he levered his heavy frame out of the Datsun, bending over and in to grab his phone, placing it in a belt case on his left, and then pulling out a small semi-automatic pistol, securing it in the pouch on the back of his belt. He deftly flipped his shirttail over the weapon.
The guy was maybe two hundred and fifty pounds, sporting a thick, dark goatee and mustache that were obviously dyed, a bulbous nose, and wearing impenetrable wrap-around mirrored sunglasses and a dark brown suede brimmed hat pulled down low, a turquoise stone centered in the sweat-stained band around the crown. He was in his thirties.
Scott quickly looked away and back down at the rows of bags in front of him when the man looked directly at Scott as he strode confidently through the door.
“Dude!” the man called with a quick shift to the attendant who was now finished with the cigarettes and stood with his hands on the counter. Goatee Man had a voice that was a ride down a gravel washboard road, a whisky in one hand and a cigarette in the other, wrapped around the steering wheel.
“Dude!” the attendant called back. “What’re you doin’ off ‘a work? It ain’t even lunchtime.”
Goatee Man went to the two-section cooler and opened a door. He answered with an irritated snarl, “It was fer shit, today. That pinhead manager we have musta been on the rag ‘er somethin’”. He pulled out a quart bottle of Coors. “I just couldn’t take it no more. So I just left. Called it a day. Fuck him.”
He placed the bottle on the counter and the attendant offered a laugh and a weak fist bump. The Goatee Man bumped back a little too hard. The attendant winced and with a pained smile said, “Good one, Dude!”
Scott had started staring at Goatee Man again. When the man turned to come down the aisle Scott was in, Scott quickly looked down again. He heard the man walk up close beside him as Scott studied the products, his brain not really registering what they were.
“You gotta try the Alien Jerky,” Goatee Man commanded.
Scott looked at the man, uncomprehending. “Huh?”
“The Alien Jerky! It’s right in front of you. What, you blind?” Goatee Man asked.
Scott looked down again at the product hangers. “Where?”
“Jesus! Right down there on your right about the level of your dick,” Goatee Man spat out. The attendant, observing this exchange, chuckled.
Scott looked and finally made sense of the black and white alien face staring at him from the labels of maybe ten hangers, realizing it was the same as the one on the big sign out front.
“Oh. Yeah. That’s what I stopped in for, actually,” Scott related as he reached down to take one of the flat, nondescript bags from a hanger.
“Naw, not that one. That’s got a weird, like, chemical-y aftertaste - although some people love that one don’t ask me why. Grab the Mesquite flavor one. Can’t never go wrong with that one. Down there further,” he pointed.
Scott put back the Area 51 flavor bag and did as he was told. He took one Mesquite flavor off the hanger. “Hey, thanks,” he nodded to the guy as he started to head toward the cash register counter.
“Whoa! Hold on there! You’re only gonna buy one bag?” Goatee Man questioned.
Scott looked down at the bag. It had an unusually high price tag. He had never paid that much for beef jerky before in his life.
“I was just going to try one. Maybe come back for more it I liked it,” Scott said unsurely.
Goatee Man stepped foward to aggressively push Scott’s shoulder away so that it turned him to be facing Goatee Man.
“Don’t blow smoke up my ass, sister,” the guy said in a mouth-only-smile. “You’re just passin’ through and ain’t very likely at all to be ‘comin’ back, are ya?”
Scott was affronted by Goatee Man’s physical action and his flight or fight response kicked into gear pretty quickly. This was not new to Scott. His face automatically pinched into a suspicious scowl that he allowed to be presented to the guy.
“How would you know I won’t be coming back?” he asked.
“Yer plates, dude,” Goatee Man said. Then he let out a hoarse laugh. “Relax. I ain’t the CIA.”
Scott lowered his shield a bit and relaxed. He let out his breath with a false chuckle, nodded, and turned to go.
“Dude!” the guy called, again grabbing Scott’s arm this time. Scott whirled on the man, pissed off. They were the same height but the guy had seventy pounds on Scott. And there was that gun that was out of sight but decidedly not out of Scott’s mind, although when confronted, Scott had a tendency to ignore normal signs of caution.
“What?! Stop grabbing me!” Scott said, voice raised. Over at the cash register the attendant took note and appeared alarmed, moving his arm stealthily under the counter.
“Whoa! Hold yer horses, Dude,” the man said with a wet sugar-slippery smile. “Nobody’s tryin’ to bust yer balls, ya know?”
“Just don’t grab me again. Okay?” Scott said, backing down.
Goatee Man touched the brim of his hat. “Didn’t mean to be no affront to you. It’s just that I know for certain you’re gonna want more than one bag once you taste it. All the other Jerky’s will suck compared to that,” he said as he pointed to the one package of jerky in Scott’s hand.
Easing a bit, Scott asked, “It’s that good?”
“It’s my company,” Goatee Man proudly said. “I do it on the side of my fucked up day job. Make it right over in the closed service bays next door.” He gestured with his head toward the wall behind the coolers.
“He’s not pullin’ yer chain, Dude! That’s some badass jerky, there!” the attendant yelled over to Scott, having closely followed the whole exchange. “You won’t go near another jerky after tastin’ the dude’s.”
Scott looked back to Goatee Man who watched Scott expectantly tilting his hatted head, then to the packages again. Right then Scott comprehended an urgent pressure in his groin and realized he had to pee. Badly. And he wanted nothing better then to get out of there.
“Better take at least five ‘a them,” Goatee Man suggested, his eyes aimed point blank at Scott’s.
Scott felt like he was being tested, though he wanted it to be his choice. His breathing was still short and quick from the physical contact and that caused a shortage of oxygen to his thinking. Finally, he gave way to the other’s stare and grabbed four more packages of Mesquite, going along with it just to be released from this bizarre skit. It was just a few bucks, anyway.
Goatee Man smiled large. “That’s what I’m sayin’!” and clapped Scott on the back hard.
The morning weather had turned on Scott and dark, hard-edged clouds rolled along about two fingers from the horizon. The wind blew colder as he pulled out of the station, tires crunching on the stiff gravel. As he passed under the unearthly glare of the Alien, he again noticed the rusty welded band around the sign pole and thought he understood the uncalled-for warning from the attendant.
Where in the world had his animosity and suspicion come from, Scott wondered. It was like the guy was playing Scott for the benefit of Goatee man. He was Goatee Man’s Igor, swaying back and forth behind the counter shrieking, “It’s Alive!”, one cockeyed eyeball trained on Goatee Man in order to gain his master’s approval.
Scott was at the counter, paying for his five Alien Jerky packages at whopping ten dollars and ninety-five cents each package. Plus, he had impulsively grabbed a Snickers bar, an unrefrigerated Oishi Green Tea, fruit Mentos, and two individual size packages of Keebler orange cheese crackers. His mind was yelling at him, What in fuck do you need these for?! You have Betti’s goodies and snacks and plenty of diet Snapple in the Jeep, you schmuck!
The truth, he admitted as the attendant was ringing it all up, was that he thought he’d be able to leave the building with the two men liking him if he spent some money and bought the Jerky as he was told to.
“Do you have a restroom?”, Scott asked Travis. At least he thought the attendant’s name was Travis. The embroidered oval name tag on is dirty gray-blue shirt indicated that his name was Travis. Either it was that name or it was someone else’s shirt, Scott thought.
After Scott had asked the question, the attendant stopped in mid-motion, his mouth opened to grope for speech that was not forthcoming and turned immediately to Goatee Man for help.
“Is that some problem or something?” Scott asked, his head turning between Maybe Travis and Goatee Man.
The large man standing to the side of Scott rubbed his tongue along the inside between his upper teeth and lips, his eyelids lowering in contemplation of what he should say to Scott. In a few moments, he spoke.
“Naw, that’s not gonna be happenin’. It’s... out of order,” Goatee Man said.
Maybe Travis too quickly agreed, “Yeah! It don’t work. You can’t go in there.”
“What?” Scott asked, not understanding the subtext of this exchange.
Goatee Man said, “There’s, a... a... plumbing problem in there.”
“Where do you go?” Scott asked Maybe Travis, turning to him.
“Uh. I can go in there. But. But nobody else can go in there, right Dude?” He looked to Goatee Man for confirmation.
“Huh?” Scott wondered aloud, aware enough to know that this was a weird answer.
Goatee Man spoke. “Hey, if all you gotta do is drain the dragon, just go out back. Hey, we all do from time to time. No sense in wastin’ water when you could just be addin’ to the aquifer out back. Ya know what I mean?”
Maybe Travis got a kick out out of this. “Yeah, just go out back and siphon the python!” he laughed nervously. Then he got serious again, “Just don’t go into the bathroom.”
Scott looked back to Goatee Man who merely tilted his head down and sideways indicating he’d better not go any further with this.
“Yeah, Okay. I’ll just go out back, then.”
Maybe Travis finished bagging Scott’s purchase and Goatee Man set the other items he had grabbed next to his quart-size Coors.
As Scott slid his credit card through the machine to pay, he looked to the Alien sign out by the frontage road.
“That’s a pretty cool sign,” Scott said. “I like it”.
“Don’t even think about it,” the attendant growled in his skinny voice and keeping his eyes on Scott’s.
“Yeah, that’s off limits, there, Bud,” Goatee Man said in a low voice, crowding in close to Scott on the left side of the counter. “Just get yer ass movin’ down the road like a happy camper.”
Scott clearly did not understand where this all was coming from. He had thought he was just being a normal person relating to other people while in reality, he was having an Alien Encounter. “What is wrong with these people?!”, he thought.
Scott couldn’t come up with anything to say, so he just nodded to them like he would do if he were dealing with a dementia patient who thought he was General Custer who kept asking him where his horse was. Scott did not look back as the door closed behind him and as he crossed in front of the station toward the Jeep, he thought he heard them laughing wildly.
Scott put the groceries into the Jeep and walked around to the back of the building. He unzipped and prepared to relieve himself and heard in his mind, “Hey, we all take a piss out there.” He looked around at the ground. He couldn’t go. He imagined the ground aquifer flowing with urine down below.
He zipped back up and turned back to the Jeep. As he walked, he heard the sound of a toilet flushing and voices, one loud command and one agitated, through the exterior cinder block wall.
Scott pulled the Jeep’s door handle but it did not work. He pulled again. Locked.
“Oh, holy shit. What else?!” He said, panicking.
From the south, he heard the roar of a lone diesel engine at speed out on the highway so he turned to look. He spotted a semi rolling fast northward and watched it as it gained on the station. It was a solid purple against the gray sky and as it passed, Scott thought he could make out the shiny chrome silhouette of a curvy woman on the side of the door. The high revs of the tuned diesel over the hum of the eighteen wheels on concrete gave it a sound that seemed to resonate with the earth itself. Scott was momentarily put in a trance. Then, with a blast of its airhorn, it was gone north.
“What the...?” Scott said aloud, thinking he was imagining things due to the strangeness of his recent encounter.
He looked back into the Jeep, tried the handle again. It still did not work but for no apparent reason, he had calmed. He let go of the handle and went around to the passenger door. That handle was functional so he reached in and across the front seats to unlock the driver’s door.
When Scott came back around to get into the driver’s seat, he glanced down the road where the semi had disappeared, not knowing what to think and then thinking that not thinking was okay.
As he pulled back onto the highway to continue south, he tore open one of the packages of Alien Jerky with his teeth and stuffed a large piece into his mouth. It was fantastic! He’d never had jerky like that. He laughed, remembering the Mars bar slogan and he said to himself, “This Alien Jerky is out of this world!” and laughed again.
Small patches of blue sky returned to look over landscape ahead of him. It never did rain or snow and as Scott eyed the radio clock, he realized he had not looked at his phone even once since arriving at the service station without service. He pulled his iPhone out of his jeans pocket, plugged it into the usb cable that went to the Jeep’s old style cigarette lighter charger and checked for messages. The red badge on the app icon said there were eighteen new messages. There were also five voicemails on the phone icon.
“Man, I don’t want to talk to anyone right now,” he thought.
New Mexico lay some miles ahead. The Land of Enchantment. “Yeah, I could stand to be enchanted about now,” he said aloud to himself.
He thought about the toilet thing back at the station and wondered if he should think about it more. He decided “No”. He ate more Alien Jerky, wondering at the extraordinary taste of it. A whole line of trucks blew past him headed north. Then there was open land with a hint of mountains - or were they hills? - off in the southwestern distance.
Scott glanced at the door lock on the inside of the Jeep. “Must be a relay gone bad or something. Have to get it fixed when I get down there. Maybe Todd knows how to fix it.” Todd should be good for a few things like that, he guessed.
Scott thought back to his conversation with Todd from the other day. That call in itself was a strange encounter. It was like Todd was talking in a bathroom or something like that. Scott hated talking to people who in the bathroom doing their business. He himself would never do that and usually insisted people call him back if he sensed there was a lot of porcelain around the speaker. His ex-wife was always talking to him from the john, yelling if he couldn’t hear her.
These thoughts reminded Scott that he still had to urinate. He kept going until he found a turnoff that had another frontage road. When he pulled off, got out and went to the side of the Jeep away from traffic, he let it flow, audibly thankful for the release. There was no porcelain for the sound to bounce off of out near the fields and windbreaks of the countryside, but the sound of Todd’s call was echo-y. He didn’t hear any grunting or pauses to wipe or anything like that, though. What would it be like working with the guy? And what the hell was with that accent? That was another super odd thing.
As Scott stood facing the foreign landscape, his stream blissfully arcing out away from the Jeep, he tried to remember the exact brief conversation he had with Todd.